Pretty Far Off the Map in the South Pacific

This week, a couple of quick little impressions about flying in and around the Vanuatu archipelago – Here's one, another in a day or so. Pictured here is an outrigger off Espiritu Santo Island, Vanuatu, and there are a few more photos in the Vanuatu Gallery at


The Vanuatu domestic flight terminal is like the one in Nepal, and probably a dozen others we haven't seen yet. If you're a desperately underperforming, poor country in the first place, your inclination is to spend your tiny wad on the international terminal for transits and arrivals, your countrymen and the hardy few who venture by plane beyond the gateway be damned.

It's just the way it is.

Our flight from the capital to Espiritu Santo island this morning would stop at Craig's Cove, Ambrym Island. I broke out my map of Vanuatu and found two airport symbols on Ambyrm Island. Which would it be, I asked at the check-in desk.

Blank looks. Much consultation. Studying the maps. Asking the boy in the back, the baggage boy.

No one knew, but eventually I found it, a light blue marking of a physical landmark, not a town, and that brought grateful smiles from the check-in boy.

The door to domestic departures spoke three languages – English, French and Bislama. Respectively, it read: Passengers Only, Reservées aux Passagers, Pasensa No Mo. We filed in.

Twenty seats in this Twin Otter, today sixteen full.

One European family with their little girl, one huge white man in seat one, carrying on a running conversation with the pilot (it's not a big plane), his son, a twentyish couple much in love, student from New Zealand (you learn these things because in about a day and a half in Espiritu Santo, you meet every expat), four locals, two fellows from Vanuatu Telecom and Mirja and me.

The island we were leaving, the main island of Efate, brooded in cloud. It's out islands just north likewise brooded, steely gray. But Malakula, just northwest, in sight of Efate from the air, was fine, sunny, with a blue chop off its shore.

By our arrival in Ambrym, forty minutes later, there were no low clouds along the coast, only in the center around the hills. Craig's Cove was just a few houses on a pretty bay maybe three quarters of a kilometer wide, gleaming in the morning sun. The airstrip used to be paved. Now it was potholed with grass growing through it and landing shook the wheels. This was not unusual. Back at Vila domestic check-in, a chalkboard had announced, "Longana airstrip closed TFN – tall grass."

Dirty boys with gleaming smiles ran out to meet the plane at Craig's Cove. A torn and ratty windsock had gone so into disrepair it had lost its utility, though it still hung on its pole.

We let off two and took two on on Ambrym, along with a bag of coconuts. The two we let off were the Telecom men, with boxes from Telecom Vanuatu LTD. Radio Systems Dept. and an antenna bundled into sections. It was so hot the plane began to sweat, dropping beads of water onto our thighs. Two pickup trucks appeared out of the jungle for the Telecom men, and while we sat in Craig's Cove we let in hordes of flies.

From Ambrym it was a brisk twenty-something minutes up to Santo, flying at 4000 feet, from where you can gaze intimately at the blue chop of the South Pacific.

I read over the shoulder of the ni-Vanuatu man across the aisle. He was reading The Tongue, a Creative Force, by Charles Capps. "Watch Your Words" was the chapter.

I could read "I'll deny you before the Father," and a sub-heading, "God's Word is Wisdom."

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